Dozens of Israeli kids from all corners of the country had a dream come true Sunday night as they kicked, dribbled and passed soccer balls with superstar Lionel Messi and his fellow teammates from the Barcelona Football Club.
The event, held in front of 12,000 pint-sized cheering fans at the Bloomfield Stadium in Jaffa, was the culmination of FC Barcelona’s two-day whirlwind “peace tour,” during which the superpower soccer team hoped to encourage coexistence in this troubled region.
President Shimon Peres, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai and Education Minister Shai Piron were all on hand for the event, which saw FC Barcelona hold a clinic of sorts, followed by a live practice and friendly match, for a handful of very lucky youngsters. Those plucked to play included both Arabs and Jews involved with the Peres Center for Peace, children with handicaps and special needs, and a group of aspiring pre-adolescent female standout athletes.
“Play football and make friends,” Peres, speaking in English, told the sold-out crowd at the beginning of the evening’s events. “Don’t make war and make enemies.” He went on to call the Barcelona players “ambassadors for peace,” while Education Minister Shai Piron, speaking in Hebrew, trumpeted the fact that child athletes represented Israel’s geographic, socioeconomic and religious diversity.
Peres kicked off the event — by kicking the ball to Messi. The Barca superstar may have anticipated a delicate pass from the president, but the 90-year-old Peres whacked it toward his midriff from close range. Messi did his best to control the ball, as his teammates, laughing, looked on.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had been expected to also attend the event and deliver remarks from the Bloomfield pitch, was absent due to the inconvenience that would have been caused by his security arrangements.
Sunday night’s event came at the end of a jam-packed 48 hours for the Barcelona team, who stopped in the Middle East on their way to an Asian tour in the Far East. They arrived on Saturday and kicked off their tour with a clinic and friendly match with Palestinian children in the West Bank town of Dura, and also visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and got in some face time with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
On Sunday, their bus arrived in Jerusalem, where the entire team – including Messi and new golden boy, Brazilian prodigy Neymar – visited the Western Wall. They were then the guests of honor at a reception at Peres’s official residence, where Barcelona President Sandro Rosell told the crowd, “It’s an honor for us to be here and share our time with all our fans in Israel, especially children.”
Rosell went on to reference the fact that the peace tour is occurring in the region at the same time that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are trying to hammer out a deal, saying, “It is good timing because it coincides with negotiations for peace in Washington. All of the world is watching you and the negotiations and we all pray these negotiations will end in a good manner.”
At Bloomfield on Sunday evening, thousands of youngsters decked out in the maroon and navy striped jerseys of the iconic club began crowding into the stadium hours before the match. An equally frenzied contingent of both international and local media, including dozens of Spanish-language journalists traveling with the team, were also milling about.
Opening acts, including countertenor star David D’Or and popular entertainer Einat Sarouf, provided songs of peace and hope before lines of costumed children streamed onto the pitch, waving banners bearing slogans including “We Condemn Racism” and “The Other is Me.”
The players then strolled onto the field, led by midfielder Xavier Hernandez, AKA Xavi, each holding the hand of two Israeli youngsters. They grinned and waved to the roar of the crowd, nearly all of whom were screaming for Messi alone.
Despite the flurry and pomp and circumstance, several youngsters who trekked down to Bloomfield on Sunday said they believed the evening held true promise for peace in the Middle East.
“Barcelona is the best soccer team in the world,” said Guy Ginat, 10, who hopes to grow up and play soccer professionally. “They can help make peace with this game because everyone loves this game.”
Guy was at the match with his cousin Yair and his older brother Amit, a 19-year-old soldier in the IDF.
“Soccer is not in the political sphere,” Amit said, “But maybe this is good. Maybe because it’s from such a different side, they’ll be able to help the situation. But I still believe it depends on the government really taking action.”
Yair, who is 12, said he didn’t care much about peace. “I just want to see Messi,” he said.